Kansas City was never really connected to Nelson Cruz in rumors, but the Mariners' decision to sign him is directly related to the Royals' plans going forward thanks to the rules of free agency. Namely, the qualifying offer. By signing Cruz, the Mariners forfeited their first round pick in next June's Amateur Draft. They were set to pick 19th -- now ... well, they won't. The Blue Jays and Mets also signed Russell Martin and Michael Cuddyer respectively, players that had also declined Qualifying Offers, leading to a forfeited draft first round pick. As a result of these signings, the Royals climbed the draft order by three spots from 25th overall to 22nd.
The Red Sox already signed away two of the big-name free agents tethered to Qualifying Offer picks (Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez), but their first-round pick is protected since it falls in the top 11 -- which is probably one reason they decided to sign both players -- so those signings weren't beneficial to Kansas City's draft position. However, there are plenty of big Q.O. names left on the market, and the Red Sox (probably) can't sign them all.
Twelve players were extended the qualifying offer in November and all twelve turned it down. Six of those players have already signed -- Cruz, Ramirez, Sandoval, Martin, Cuddyer, and Victor Martinez, who re-signed with Detroit. But six still remain, and that could mean the Royals are set to move further up the draft order.
The imminent signings of Max Scherzer, James Shields, Ervin Santana, Francisco Liriano, Melky Cabrera, and David Robertson could all benefit the Royals. It just depends on where those players choose to sign. Of course, if the Royals choose to sign one of those players -- other than Shields -- they would forfeit their first-round pick, a commodity that is getting more and more valuable as Q.O. free agents drop off the board.
The top 11 picks are protected this year. Under typical circumstances it'd only be the top ten, but the Reds -- who pick 11th -- get a protected pick as well since Houston will receive a compensatory pick (No. 5 overall) for failing to sign Brady Aiken last year.
It's pretty convoluted. But basically, if you're a Royals fan, you might want to root against the six remaining Q.O. free agents signing with teams in the top 11 -- the Diamondbacks, Astros, Rockies, Rangers, Twins, Red Sox, White Sox, Cubs, Phillies, and the Reds.
Then there are the teams that pick after the Royals in the first round -- the Tigers, Cardinals, Dodgers, Orioles, Nationals, and the Angels. If a Q.O. free agent signs with one of those teams, the Royals will still climb the draft order, but it won't be in the first round.
That leaves a small cluster of teams to root for when it comes to where Scherzer, Shields, Liriano, Santana, Cabrera, and Robertson sign. The Marlins, Padres, Rays, Braves, Brewers, Yankees, Indians, Giants, Pirates, and the Athletics all have unprotected picks before the Royals in the first round. Those are the teams that could help the Royals climb the draft board by signing one of the remaining Q.O. free agents, as long as they aren't re-signing a player they had in 2014.
For example, if the Yankees sign Scherzer and the Marlins sign Shields, the Royals would jump up two spots next June.
That's significant because, not only will the Royals pick sooner, but they will also receive a higher draft budget thanks to MLB-mandated slot values. Last year, the difference between the 25th pick -- where the Royals were originally situated -- and the 16th pick -- where they could be situated if all remaining Q.O. free agents sign with teams that have unprotected first rounder ahead of Kansas City -- was about $500,000. That might not sound like much, but even small amounts of money can be significant in determining a draft strategy.
In the 2014 amateur draft, the Royals had a little extra money to play around with and it resulted in them netting both Hunter Dozier and Sean Manaea, thanks to some clever financial maneuvering. They'll have a sandwich pick again in 2015, assuming they don't re-sign James Shields. So they could end up with three seven-figure slots, depending on how they're arranged.
We're still closer to the last draft than the next one, but the Royals will be watching closely as free agency unfolds this winter because it will have an effect on their strategy in June.